"Is Repentance Really That Exciting"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 22, 2006
Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
Yet, we enter our churches with a mental and verbal desire to change, to grow, to evolve and we enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ. Most of us can do this, however, without really disturbing the essence of our inner world. As long as we can remain in control, we feel we are in good shape. How many of us are really prepared to change how we order our lives? This is a challenge, particularly when we believe we have been living our faith for many years.
Last Wednesday I had a 10:00 a.m. meeting in Gaithersburg. You may recall the kind of morning that was. Rain was coming down in sheets at times and the traffic was creeping along at a snail’s pace. When I find myself in these patterns, I remain very alert. I want to see how people are managing their inner world while being in an environment that tends to frustrate.
It wasn’t long before I saw a driver using the left shoulder to get around the rest of us who were standing still. From where I sat in the passing lane, I could see he was getting ahead of three lanes filled with hundreds cars in front of me. This driver eventually pulled along side a large truck. He knew that when the traffic started to move, he could easily pull in front of that truck. He was successful. His payoff was the illusion that he had gotten ahead of the rest of us. I might add, and I kid you not, the driver had a number of Jesus stickers and the sign of a fish on the car’s bumper.
What would it take for that driver to understand what he was doing to the rest of us? Suppose everyone behaved like that! No doubt he loves to win at the games he plays. Perhaps he is always in competition with other drivers on the road. Before we become overly zealous in attacking this driver, let us examine our own thirst to beat the system.
We have all known people who have had exclusive tours of the White House because they knew a ranking officer in the Secret Service. We have gotten into highly publicized Smithsonian exhibits because we knew someone who ushered us in through a side entrance for a private showing. We have used our network of friends, on occasion, to gain special favors that are not available to others. We easily write this off to the politics of friendship, i.e., knowing people in the right places at the right times to make such things happen for us.
The other day I received instructions on how to prevent points from being added on to our license when we are caught in a traffic violation. The instructions were that if our fine is $79, we are to send a check for $82.00. The computer software registers our check and automatically issues a refund. We are advised to throw the refund away. The system is satisfied because we paid our fine and we will not be bothered again. However, the system cannot issue points until all financial transactions are completed. By throwing away the refund, no points will ever be registered.
While this may be an urban legend, how many of you will be tempted to go to our literature rack next week to retrieve a copy of my sermon just to review again the formula for preventing points being added to your driver’s license? I am tempted to ask for a show of hands.
In our lesson this morning, we are told that Jesus went through Galilee to preach the Good news from God. He said, “The right time has come and the Kingdom of God is here! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News.” After this announcement he began to call his disciples to follow him.
What is that Good News? Many preachers tell us that the Good News is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. If this is the Good News, what was Jesus preaching before his crucifixion? The Good News was his message. He called his disciples to help him spread that message.
That message was that his listeners could change the quality and destiny of their lives any time they desired. What was true then is true today. We are the only ones who can change how we think, how we respond to temptation and how we select the horizons that will govern the quality of our destiny.
As we mentioned, change is difficult. More than likely our habits are so engrained within us that developing new ones would not be greeted with much enthusiasm. Most of us are behaving exactly the way we want to. Repentance really is not that exciting.
Our habits, that have taken years to create, have very distinct voices that give us permission to compromise, to beat the system, to remain in competition with others and to get ahead of everyone else. Their seductive voices say, “Go ahead. Treat yourself; you are worth it. No one is looking. You’ll be okay. Your husband never needs to know how much you spent. What is one more drink going to do? You don’t have the opportunity to drink the really good stuff that often.”
What may complicate our desire to reshape how we think and respond is that we are not aware that we have any life issues that are causing us problems. However, we do have a keen eye for the problems others have. For example, it is not that uncommon for someone to say to me, “Dick, this morning, you delivered the most powerful sermon I have ever heard. I’d give it a ten. You hit the nail right on the head. When are copies going to be available? This one I am definitely sending to my sister.”
Such people do not understand that my messages do not fix people. Even the best sermons delivered from the greatest preachers in America only point to possibilities. They urge, invite and challenge people to grow beyond where they are. The choice to grow is ours. We have to do our own inner homework! No one, particularly God, forces anyone to grow up. When we speak of God’s will, we are always speaking of infinite patience. God does not hold a stopwatch on any of us.
Jesus was saying to his listeners, “Get with the program! The Kingdom is here. Why not see the things of this world for what they are – material forms that are always changing. You cannot take any of them with you. You do not need to possess all the objects or enjoy all the relationships that pique your desire in order to experience your wholeness. If you pursue them, one day they will possess you. They will define you and they will lead you astray.”
Repentance really is not that exciting because it means that we have to leave cherished habits behind. It means we have to change how we use our power at the office. It means we have to begin allowing people to be exactly who they are, even when we want so badly for them to be otherwise. It means being wiser stewards of our finances so that we increase our savings and investments while giving up the craving for the surround sound in front of the 70-inch plasma or LCD screen. Change is difficult!
Last week one of the men in the church sent me a story with a very familiar theme. In the New Year, a wife had given her husband a week’s membership at the local health club. Who should he meet on his first day but a gorgeous woman dressed in a form fitting spandex outfit. She said, “Hi, my name is Debbie and I’ll be your trainer for this week.” With his eyes popping out, he could not have been more pleased.
However as the week wore on, he was no longer holding in his tummy for her. By Wednesday every muscle in his body throbbed with pain. He began to see this gorgeous babe for what she was being paid to be – a drill instructor whose assignment was to get this middle aged man’s body into better shape. He did not show up for his final day because he could hardly get out of bed. He begged his wife never again to give him such a gift.
We develop a strong resistance to changing our behavioral patterns. However, we do not have to be at war with ourselves. Jesus never invited his listeners to do the impossible. He would never have told them that they could live in the Kingdom of God if it were impossible to do so. What was the secret?
The secret was to place our love of God and living in harmony with God above all other things. We are not changing for ourselves, our spouse or anyone else. We are now choosing to honor our Creator with our attitudes, our activities and our passions. When we make that choice, that is the moment when we welcome God into our lives, sometimes for the first time. We begin to understand with a much greater clarity the meaning of, “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”
Once we get outside of ourselves, our neediness and self-absorption begin to fade almost immediately. Because we have changed who we are pleasing -- our world, our relationships, our job, our attendance at worship, our generosity and what we desire will change as well. We take on a much different identity.
This past month I heard from three women who have experienced an epiphany in recent weeks. Each has cemented in her mind the difference between needing everyone’s approval and taking charge of her life. One of them wrote,
I can now be around my mother who is negative about most things without her attitudes influencing mine. I no longer look to my husband to shower me with thoughtfulness, gratitude and consideration. He is who he is. So many of my needs are gone. Where, I don’t know. Maybe they were rooted in my fear that somehow I did not matter to anyone, including myself. I now hang around optimistic people while choosing not to associate with those with toxic personalities. I am reading books that are helping me fine-tune how I perceive. I could not have imagined that such change was possible for me. What is sad is that I had grown to believe that my life would never get any better. I now know what it means to live a life of quiet desperation and have that mindset vanish over night. I am a new person and right now I am so happy!
It is very difficult for some of us to believe that this kind of change is possible. It is like being taught how to swim with the current of the river rather than against it. It is like learning that, who other people are, has nothing to do with us. Their behavior has to do with whom they have decided to be and nothing more.
Jesus changed people’s lives by allowing God to work through him. He once said, “The words I have spoken to you do not come from me. God who dwells in me does his work.” (John 14:10b). Think of how freeing this teaching is. No more struggling, no more fighting, no more hurt feelings because someone said something and no more disappointment because someone did not live up to our expectations. None of it matters because God is the new captain of our ship. Our neediness has taken a hike.
If this kind of change is not attractive and exciting to us than we are still asleep. We would be admitting that we do not understand what it was that Jesus brought or taught. Jesus said, “The right time has come and the Kingdom of God is here! Turn away from your sins and believe what I teach.”
That Good News is that change is not only possible, it is inevitable once we decide to allow God’s spirit to communicate through us. All the judgments we used to make vaporize. They only revealed the neediness of our old self that has held us prisoner by them for years. The new self no longer requires everyone to love us. We learn that it is our kind that the world needs, rather than our need for our world to change before we become happy. This is a remarkable shift in perception. Once that choice for change has been made, nothing will ever again appear the same. That’s Jesus’ promise.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, how grateful we are that you created us to serve. Our lives thrive when we learn to let our inner world glow. Our confidence in you is revealed when our fears no longer command our attention. Our courage increases when we no longer are shaken by the unexpected. We have learned that the approval from others no longer defines our identity. We have discovered that leadership frequently costs us our comfort and security. Teach us how to remain sensitive to the movements of your spirit. Help us learn that extending love is a much better guide than our logic. As we trust you to plant us in the gardens where we are most needed, may you find us always willing to say, “Here am I, send me.” Amen.